13 May, 2009

Review: Wolverine and Star Trek

Two film franchises expanded this month.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a prequel/spin-off to the X-Men films (which themselves tie into the larger
Marvel Universe, as we're sure to see on screen in due course). Star Trek is also prequel of sorts, grafting onto the trunk of the Star Trek mythos.

How did Wolverine become Wolverine? X-Men Origins: Wolverine
, presuming this is a question worth answering, follows the relationship and rivalry between mutant half-brothers, James Logan and Victor Creed, via their involvement with evil government scientist William Stryker. Their divergent paths - Logan's towards a normal life and Creed's towards violence and savagery - lead them to become Wolverine and Sabretooth, respectively.

The wild success of the X-Men franchise was due, in no small part, to Bryan Singer's witty direction of the first two episodes. Similarly, the Spiderman films and the recent Iron Man, benefitted from the strong authorial stamps of Sam Raimi and Jon Favreau respectively. The producers of Wolverine tried the same route, hiring Gavin Hood (Tsotsi and Rendition) to direct.

The action sequences are competent, but much of the characterisation is flat and uninteresting, with a consequential tonelessness across the piece. Like the disappointing X-Men 3, Wolverine feels functional, formulaic and indifferent to its material. The character of Wolverine is shorn of much of ambivalence, mystery and vulnerability that made him interesting in the first two X-Men films. And none of the supporting characters are well developed.

Of course Hugh Jackman is fine and veteran character actor Liev Schreiber puts in a menacing performance as Creed, but the plot is convoluted, trite and obscure by turns and serves mainly to service future additions to the Marvel franchise.

By contrast Star Trek is a veritable love letter from director JJ Abrams (of Lost
fame) to Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek series, while remaining accessible to the non-Trekkie. It is also a masterclass on the space opera genre, without resorting to the kind of clichés that tebesmirch : cool spaceships, mind-boggling special effects, fascinating characters, strange worlds and creatures, a love triangle, a diabolical world-ending machine, time travel, near-misses and last-minute escapes.

The plot sees a villainous Romulan, Nero (played with earthy vigour by Eric Bana), seeking revenge in kind for the destruction of his homeworld. Can the crew of the USS Enterprise stop him? In so far as this is as straightforward adventure movie, it is Kirk's story, but the emotional core of the movie is with commander Spock - vulnerable, brilliant and arrogant - caught between his human and vulcan heritages and desires, freedom and belonging.

Successive directors of Star Trek films came to realise that the relationship between Spock (intellectual and emotional) and Kirk (physical and instinctual) was the key to its success, but few have interrogated it so subtly, and sparks fly between Quinto's Spock and Pine's Kirk. To do this while keeping the jumping and fighting in focus is all the more satisfying. This is not so much a revision, as a revisitation, of Star Trek's roots.

JJ Abrams has mastered the pace of an action film. Star Trek, like Abrams Mission Impossible 3, veritably sprints along. In fact, like Wolverine, Star Trek is replete with characters and incident, but never gratuitously. And if it can be a bit breathless at times, Star Trek is never boring and how often can you say that of a 2 hour movie?